Last night, Streetsblog and the New York Transit Museum hosted a discussion on the future of Bus Rapid Transit in New York. Mayor de Blasio has pledged to implement “world-class” BRT, and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has promised a stepped-up timetable for expansion of Select Bus Service, New York’s brand of enhanced bus. But what will it take to get us there? Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Eric Beaton of NYC DOT, and Robert Thompson of New York City Transit joined Streetsblog Editor-in-Chief Ben Fried to talk about how Select Bus Service has progressed in NYC and where the program is headed.
SBS has its origins in studies that DOT, the MTA, and New York State DOT began in 2004. Today, the program has become a fixture, outlasting electoral changes and turnover at the top of agencies, Beaton noted, but at first it was a tenuous proposition, involving collaboration between government bureaucracies that rarely spoke to each other.
New leadership at DOT gave the program a jolt in 2007. “When suddenly there was a decision at the tops of the agencies that ‘Let’s do something,’ people were ready to go,” Thompson said. In 2008, the first SBS route went live on Fordham Road. Now there are seven SBS lines in all five boroughs, with several more in the planning phases.
SBS routes include a mix of camera-enforced painted bus lanes, off-board fare collection, signal priority for buses at intersections and curb extensions at bus stops. This suite of improvements has been deployed, to varying degrees, on each SBS route since 2008, and transit speeds have increased 15 to 23 percent on those corridors. More full-fledged BRT alignments separate buses from private car traffic to a greater degree, but last night’s panelists offered some reasons why that model may not work on many streets.
New York doesn’t have the street width that cities like Bogota can use to carve out space for separated busways with express and local service, and the city’s lack of side alleys means curb access for necessary deliveries like oil trucks has to be maintained. Center-running transit lanes are an option, but present downsides for local bus service. DOT had considered center-running BRT on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, which would have involved more left-turn restrictions on other traffic, then opted for “offset” bus lanes next to the parking lane. “At least for that particular corridor, the downsides were not worth the upsides,” Beaton said.